I’m Tired: A Perspective on BIPOC Student Labor

It has become nearly impossible for me to take a break, and I believe most of it is because I am a person of color.

When EDI is the issue on the table, students of color will inevitably be the ones most heavily affected. Inequity is just another part of our daily lives; we do not have the option to stop thinking about it as soon as we leave the classroom or the discussion boards. It is imperative that our voices are a part of the discussion and integral to the decision-making process. 

Yet at the same time, there are so very few of us. A survey of American librarians by the ALA revealed that nearly 88 percent of credentialed librarians are white. The last report was published in 2012. More recent information from Data USA shows that 81.3 percent of librarians in the US are white. This seems reflective of library school program demographics in general. Even the supposedly “more diverse” programs are still severely lacking, and honestly might want to consider what their definition of “diverse” actually is. When your already-small pool of students of color is mostly dominated by East Asian women, that’s not really diversity. It’s just not white.

My point in bringing in these statistics is to illustrate how underrepresented BIPOC are in the librarianship field, and that when our numbers are so low, our collective ability to take time and energy to liaise with administration is severely diminished. When these issues are affecting us directly, that saps even more of our emotional resources, because we must recount and relive traumatic experiences in order to make administration believe that our concerns are valid. Moreover, it is a common experience among BIPOC to feel that it is not enough to merely be competent at what we do; we must also excel. It is not enough simply to have work experience and pass our classes. Our résumés must be filled with prestigious internships, multiple scholarships, and countless examples of exceptional leadership. We must outperform our white colleagues at every turn, to prove that we deserve to have a place in an institution that was never meant to include us. So when meetings are called, we must take time out of our days – time that could have been spent working for our jobs, catching up on homework, or simply recouping our energy – to once again step up to the mic, even if we are not convinced that our voices will even be taken into account.

But we cannot afford not to appear at these meetings, because our absence is often taken as tacit approval of administrative action. If we voice concerns later, we will simply be told that we didn’t seem to have a problem when the department extended an invitation for students to speak up, since we didn’t even attend. So we students of color try to pass the work between us, trading off attending meetings with administration so that no one person takes on the entire burden. But when there are so few of us, it becomes difficult to provide adequate time for rest in between the meetings. The gears of academia grind incredibly slowly and change happens at an incremental pace; in contrast, most students graduate from our program in two to three years. Time passes so quickly for us, and we are at a disadvantage: if the administration wants to ignore us, they just have to wait for us to either graduate and leave, or burn out and drop out.

While I would like to believe that some of these issues could be alleviated by providing student representatives with wages or even a stipend, that cannot be the only step taken towards a solution. A fellow student brought up a very good point at one of our last meetings with faculty and staff: they said that even when student representatives are compensated for their work, the potentially abusive power dynamics between them and the administration still persist. Because the department both pays the student reps and holds the right to grant their degree, the students often have no way to gain freedom from administration, curbing their ability to enact meaningful change that goes against the faculty mandate.

I would like to be able to place this labor in the hands of my white colleagues, who outnumber us and are often eager to participate in discussions of EDI. But the truth is that my experience in this program has not built my trust in my white classmates; as per my last post, most of them have stayed silent and passive on these issues, and I have little reason to expect that they would be more vocal and insistent in front of administration. I admit that I am not willing to hand my narrative over even to the few that I do trust, because I fear that they will simply be praised by the administration for being so progressive – for repeating the points that BIPOC have been making for decades. To paraphrase a friend of mine: “they get applauded, and we just get more racism.”

I write this not to provide a solution, but to give voice to other BIPOC who are feeling perpetually burnt out by their departmental administration and by the inaction of other students. It is not fair to ask for so much free labor from students when we already pay so much money just to attend graduate school – it is even less fair to ask this of BIPOC, who are so underrepresented in the field and in the program. It is particularly egregious to ask this during a pandemic, when everyone is exhausted and anxious.

How do we change this situation? If I had an easy answer ready I would offer it, but I don’t, and honestly I am disinclined to dedicate time to solving a problem that I did not create, and that causes me harm on a regular basis. So, having exploited my own trauma for this post, I pose this question to those of you who are reading this article.

Because I am so, so tired, and I know I am not the only one. I am not even the most exhausted of us – not by a long shot. Something has to change.

Photo by Khoa Võ from Pexels

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